Little Texas

Missing Years

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Reunions are often difficult affairs. The magic and spirit of collaboration that resulted in what made an act special can be burdensome, full of pitfalls caused by unresolved resentments and bruised egos that added to the split in the first place. Some bands reunite for the purpose of making money on tour, others for the sake of nostalgia. Some, however, do so because the time spent apart following individual pursuits led them back to the root. Little Texas, one of the most popular country groups of the '90s, makes a case for the latter. Featuring four of its original six members -- Del Gray, Duane Propes, Dwayne O'Brien, and Porter Howell (Brady Seals and Tim Rushlow were working with other bands) -- Little Texas releases its first studio album in a decade (there are also live and greatest-hits collection released nearly at the same time from which to rove may be foolish). The Missing Years is chock-full of risk and ambition. It is a serious attempt to reinvent the band rather than "recapture" the magic. After all this time apart, there is nothing to prove, and yet everything. This is an act that soared the heights and cannot look backward. Thankfully, they don't. Howell becomes the group's de facto lead singer, and as a result changes the chemistry considerably. Admittedly, he is not as gifted a singer as Seals, but the material suits him just fine. Think of Steve Earle if he could actually sing. The other part of the equation is the band's sound, which is louder, more assertive and less reliant on ballads to get through. Little Texas has become a full fledged country-rock band with an emphasis on the latter. Standout tracks include the gritty opener "Gotta Get Me Down Home," full of razor-sharp slide guitars, cracking snare drums and a raucous vocal by Howell. It's a party anthem, and as such it works in spades. It is as if Little Texas is letting the cat out of the bag right away and saying: "Look, we haven't changed our name, but we've changed our sound and will not be looking to fulfill anyone's expectations -- we're a different band now." This is asserted in the first line of the title track: "I bet you never thought you'd see me/Round these parts again..." There's some cello in here in the low end, but what's more important is that these cats capture the vocal and lyrical magic which, while deeply influenced by the Eagles, is solidly their own. The song is about returning, coming home a changed person as a result of a circuitous and sometimes difficult path, longing for something that can't necessary be named but is felt in the depths of the heart. Change and return are fitting themes for the entire album. The other ballads that cut deep here are "Knees" and the deeply atmospheric "So Long." The former is an offering of wisdom about love and its loss acquired the hard way. It offers big ringing guitars and pedal steel kept in check by its layers of acoustic guitars that allow Howell a sturdy place to dig into the lyric. The latter is a story-song. It's a waltz, draped in beautiful mandolins and acoustic 12- and six-strings; they're buffered by big drums and a solitary pedal steel, high and lonesome in the backdrop. "Texas 101" is a bluesy rock & roll barnstormer. It'll ring big with people in Texas itself, but its lyric is rather cliché. "You Ain't Seen Me Lately" is the toughest song on the record. It's a big, bad rocker with edgy guitars and a killer double-time drum shuffle. Ultimately, Missing Years is fresh, like a live wire discharging sparks over concrete, crackling, full of twists and turns that use reflection and road-weary common sense poetry to get a message across. By the evidence presented here, Little Texas aren't so much back as a whole new band; transformed, renewed, and taking no prisoners. Recommended.

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